Saturday, May 8, 2010

Five Wounds: An Anti-Historical Novel, Part 2

[Historians] have always … written in the mode of magical realism. In strictly formal and stylistic terms, a text of social history is very closely connected to those novels in which a girl flies, a mountain moves, the clocks run backwards, and where (this is our particular contribution) the dead walk among the living.
Carolyn Steedman, Dust, p. 150

This was a psalter in whose margins was delineated a world reversed with respect to the one to which our senses have accustomed us. As if at the border of a discourse that is by definition the discourse of truth, there proceeded, closely linked to it, through wondrous allusions in aenigmate, a discourse in falsehood on a topsy-turvy universe, in which dogs flee before the hare, and deer hunt the lion.
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, p. 69

In an earlier post, I described Five Wounds as an ‘anti-historical novel’. It relates to early modern Venice, the subject of my historical research, in much the same way as the marginalia in an illuminated manuscript relate to the sacred text that they accompany: except that in this case the sacred text, which alone justifies the marginalia, is absent or has been rewritten in a profane form. Here, then, the marginalia are promoted to the centre of attention, where they blasphemously assume the outward form of Scripture (I mean that the text is typeset in imitation of the Bible).

In the quotation from Umberto Eco above, the topsy-turvy world in the margins is related to the central reality of Scripture through the lens of mockery. Mockery also has a central place in Five Wounds, but violence is an equally important organising principle. So the novel literally describes a violent world, in which mutilations and murders are commonplace, but that violence is not restricted to the events described in the plot. The novel’s mode of representation is also violent, in that it deliberately misrepresents historical sources: it forces them to say things that they did not intend.

The action of Five Wounds is set in an unnamed city that is obviously a version of Venice, but is equally obviously not the historical Venice. Rather, it parodies selected aspects of that historical context, in a manner that sometimes draws upon the so-called ‘anti-myth’ of Venice, in which the Venetian state is portrayed as a corrupt, disguised tyranny rather than a virtuous, transparent republic (the anti-myth also underlies my first book Pistols! Treason! Murder!, which is a biography of a Venetian spy). In Five Wounds, there are also numerous garbled references to Venetian topography, including (notably) the Ghetto, which is here occupied by dogs, and is on the site of an abandoned foundry, this last taking up an etymological speculation about the origin of the word, ‘Ghetto’, and rendering it literally.

If Five Wounds is set in several different historical periods simultaneously, as I suggested in that earlier post, then perhaps we might ask, Which, and in what proportion?

Historical References in Five Wounds
Above: Historical References in Five Wounds

The pie chart gives you a rough indication of the book's chronological range. With regard to the book’s conceptual universe, for example, there are references to theoretical arguments put forward by Machiavelli and Paracelsus; to theories about the physiological origins of anger and rabies; to Neoplatonic debates on the meaning of hieroglyphs (which are themselves garbled interpretations, based on erroneous premises); and so on.

This game of historical mix-and-match bears some resemblance to what anthropologists and cultural theorists call ‘bricolage’, a sort of ‘do-it-yourself’ attitude to culture, in which a world is made out of borrowed odds and ends, which are put to use without much interest in their original or intended function. Bricolage replaces the idea of misinterpretation with that of appropriation. Misinterpretation presupposes an original meaning that retains priority over all subsequent readings. It excludes unbelievers and heretics. By contrast, appropriation permits anything. It knows no sin. Its only law is, 'Do what thou wilt'. I remain committed to the idea of misinterpretation, if only because a world without sin - without laws - is profoundly boring.

We are told that it is possible to deconstruct any literary text: to force it to the point of self-contradiction. But Five Wounds positively invites you to do this. It it does not really make sense, and in particular it does not make sense when considered from a historical point-of-view, but it is not even internally consistent. There are, for example, several instances in which statements are underpinned by mutually exclusive frames of reference. Consider the following sentence, which refers to a falling drop of blood: For a few moments, it would be free: free to obey the law of gravity, whose operation was purest within the element of air. This sounds innocuous enough, but it actually jumbles Aristotelian and Newtonian physics.

This ‘doubling’ of reference is also apparent in the plot, which culminates with two alternative endings, a state of affairs that is foreshadowed throughout the book, especially in the illustrations. Thus the hand icon on the cover, which is inspired by an illustration from a seventeenth-century treatise on palmistry, presents to the viewer mutually exclusive readings: that the bearer will live long, and die young; that he will die by fire, and by drowning; and so on.

Five Wounds Hand

Above: the Five Wounds hand

The ‘doubling’ motif is most obviously applicable to a character named Cuckoo, who is, in certain respects, the central figure in the book. He is a gambler with a face made of wax, which he manipulates freely. It is his fate that is at stake in the two different endings, and he is therefore represented as doubled in several images, i.e. as a copy of himself.

At the heart of this fictional world, then, there is a vacuum. Everything it requires to sustain stable meanings has been erased, or is ‘under erasure’ - simultaneously asserted and denied, like a phrase that is crossed out but still remains visible - a condition that is not only alluded to by several handwritten corrections added onto the surface of the typeset text, but also once again in the person of Cuckoo, who is always represented in the illustrations with his face scratched out.

Cuckoo the trickster
Above: Cuckoo the trickster

What is the point of all this? It is an attempt to explore the limits of historical explanation by violating all of its essential preconditions. It is also an exploration of the nature of interpretation. As such, Five Wounds opposes a book like The Da Vinci Code, which does not admit the possibility of error in interpretation. In The Da Vinci Code, this means this, and that means that; therefore this, with all the seductive inevitability of a false syllogism. In Five Wounds, mistakes are what drive the plot, or rather, the characters never know whether or not their interpretations are correct.

Even blasphemy admits of too much certainty. Self-contradiction is the only honest strategy.

[All illustrations are by Dan Hallett.]


Dan hallett said...

I worked on the illustrations unaware of the majority of the citations and references included in the text. Therefore the visual images also run the risk of misinterpretation. When writing the discussions on my blog about creating the illustrations, I had to retrace the working method and look again through the roughs and reference material used. In the process I found myself reinterpreting work that I myself had created. In the discussions I mention these as afterthoughts and coincidences; such as the appearance of 'Papa Legba', mentioned in my comment on the 'Black Dog' article. In a way, the illustrations became more coherent upon closer inspection. Whilst creating the illustrations however, I did lend my own, possibly mistaken, interpretation to various sources of my own, from which I borrowed elements and motifs to include in the 'Five Wounds' illustrations. If we were to consider the concept of the role of subconscious in the imagination and creative works, certainty becomes even more elusive

Jonathan Walker said...

The kind of 'misinterpretation' you're talking about is a good thing Dan. It's how the collaboration works.

And things always sound more coherent afterwards, in retrospect.

Jonathan Walker said...

I mean that I agree: retrospective accounts always involve reinterpretation, if only because the context in which the new interpetations exists is now altered.